6 Ways To Perfect The Art Of Asking For Help

Are you hesitant to ask people in your network for a favor? Don't be! These 6 tips will help you learn to ask for what you want.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
November 11, 2013

"If you don't ask," novelist Nora Roberts says, "the answer is always no." But why do most of us cringe at the thought of asking for a favor, or asking for help?

For some, asking for a favor feels like begging. Others are afraid to look vulnerable or needy. Many just don't want to inconvenience another person with their request. But for most of us, it's the simple fear of rejection—hearing that dreaded no.

The reasons for not asking for help are multiple. And yet, in our connected economy, giving and receiving help is what social collaboration is all about.

Amanda Palmer, an American performer, is a powerful example of the art of asking. In her TED presentation on the topic, she explains how she raised a large sum of money on Kickstarter to fund her solo album and what she received from tweeting her "asks." As Palmer puts it, "The most perfect tools can’t help us if we’re not willing to face each other and give and receive fearlessly. And more importantly, to ask without shame."

We can all derive inspiration from Palmer's courage to ask. And Kickstarter is the ultimate digital platform for asking. But what can we do, in our own, more modest sphere, to strengthen our courage to ask? Here's a primer on asking for what you need.

Trust In People's Generosity

We often hesitate to ask because we don't believe we can get what we're asking for. Yet it's surprising how generous most people are. Often the busiest and most unlikely people will respond to a request from a total stranger. It's astounding how often people in your network, who you've only met virtually, will respond with a request for an introduction or for information.

Our connections strengthen us, so cultivate them with care. This means not just showing up when you need to ask your network for something. Decide to become a philanthropist of know-how. What knowledge, expertise or best practices can you share with others as a way to enrich them? Always give more than you ask for.

Become A Great Connector

Use your network to tap into the law of accelerating returns. This idea comes from strategy and innovation consultant Deborah Mills-Scofield, who says the more you share your network, the more people share it in return, and the more the rate of sharing accelerates. According to Mills-Scoffield, one of the traits of those who are great connectors is understanding the power of the ask.

As she says, "When we don't use [that power], we are in essence saying 'no' before the question has even been asked—saying no to opportunities that change our businesses, our organizations, ourselves … and actual lives. So even if it feels uncomfortable, look for even just a small way you can use the 'Power of the Ask' in your network." Consider how you can connect people in your network to each other.

Ask Twice

If you cringe at the thought of asking once, you'll cringe even more at the thought of asking twice. Yet research from Stanford University shows that people are more likely to say yes the second time around after having said no the first time. As Daniel Newark, the lead researcher of the study, notes, "Having already said no once, it can be more guilt-inducing and uncomfortable to say no a second time.” To avoid the feelings of discomfort, a potential helper is more likely to agree to a second and different favor.

Know When Not To Ask Twice

It's not advisable to ask the same person twice for the same favor. Embracing the courage to ask doesn't mean abandoning the grace to know when to retreat. There's a fine line between courage and pushiness. As marketing expert Seth Godin writes, "Asking the first time might be brave. Asking again (more forcefully) after you get a no is selfish and dumb. ... gainsaying an objection never works."

Don't Be Attached To The Answer

If there's one time to practice Zen non-attachment, it's when you ask for something and don't get it. From time to time, you might get a flat-out no. Let go of the outcome. Take inspiration from Lama Surya Das, one of the foremost Western Buddhist scholars, who describes attachment as holding on tightly to something that is always slipping through one's fingers—it gives rope burns. Ask, and if you don't get, simply move on.

Ask A Question In Return

When someone does you a favor, offer to do a favor in return. A simple "How can I help you?" is a show of gratitude and reciprocity.

Conversely, when someone thanks you for doing them a favor, follow Robert B. Cialdini's recommendation for your response. In Influence at Work: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini identifies six principles of influence. One of these is the law of reciprocity, which states that it's human nature to feel the need to return a favor. Cialdini recommends using this to our advantage: When someone thanks you for granting them a favor, replace the customary "Don't worry about it" or "It was nothing" with "I know you would do the same for me." This is sure to help you the next time you're the one who needs to ask for a favor.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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Photo: iStockphoto

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.